Nearly five years ago, Justin Bieber showed up as the featured artist on a male duo’s song, and unwittingly changed the course of his career.
In February 2015, Jack Ü — the EDM project of Diplo and Skrillex — released its 10-song debut album, which included a new song, “Where Are U Now,” featuring the then-embattled Bieber. A few years removed from his YouTube-indebted rise as a precocious teen heartthrob from north of the border, Bieber had at that point become embroiled in various controversies, from embarrassing TMZ videos to disruptive-neighbor behavior to multiple arrests related to reckless driving. The negative press affected Bieber’s once-mighty commercial appeal: his moody 2013 project Journals had failed to produce a breakout hit, and when Diplo and Skrillex readied their Jack Ü project, it was not with their Bieber collaboration as the lead single.
Yet “Where Are Ü Now” was, and still is, wondrous — a cry for help marked by Bieber’s “I need you” pleas, sparse instrumentation during his verses, a tropical beat and a high-pitched, dolphin-screech hook that was later revealed to be Bieber’s own voice processed to an unrecognizable point. As both a humble admission of vulnerability and killer sad-dance single, “Where Are Ü Now” proved to be a remarkable moment of commercial and critical resuscitation; the song was Bieber’s first top 10 hit in three years, and this week Pitchfork named it one of the 100 best songs of the decade. Most crucially for Bieber, “Where Are Ü Now” showed a creative path forward — Purpose, his subsequent full-length released later in 2015, was marked by similarly contemplative EDM-pop and spawned three No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, including the Skrillex-co-produced “Sorry.”
Fast-forward to 2019: Bieber remains a mega-star, a constant presence on Top 40 radio, even though he hasn’t released an album since Purpose nearly a half-decade ago. And while he’s currently teasing an album that may or may not drop before the end of this year, Bieber might have stumbled into a new sound that makes the most sense for his current career trajectory — once again, as a featured artist on a male duo’s new single.
On Friday (Oct. 4), Dan + Shay unveiled “10,000 Hours,” a new collaboration with Bieber in which the country-pop duo effectively invited the pop A-lister into their sonic universe. Before it was released, the song made sense on paper: Dan + Shay, like Bieber, are represented by Scooter Braun, and the recently married Bieber teased the collaboration on social media as “wedding music.” If Bieber is in the mood for dropping some first-dance fodder, who better to hit up than a best-selling country group with a long history of PG-rated, starry-eyed, chartbusting romance anthems?
Yet in practice, “10,000 Hours” is an even more successful pairing than expected. The gentle-twang appeal of Dan + Shay’s more heartfelt hits is just as compelling when served up to Bieber, in a second verse that amplifies the warmth of his voice and lets him tenderly ask, “Did you get your middle name from your grandma?”
The DNA of Dan + Shay’s hits “Speechless,” “All To Myself” and “19 You + Me” remains on “10,000 Hours,” with its radio-friendly melodies, wispy acoustic strums and boy-band-worthy declarations of love — ten thousand hours, you see, is the time they would take to “learn that sweet heart of yours.” And Bieber’s fit in their respective world is seamless. In the same way that the timbre of his voice perfectly complemented the EDM-adjacent pop tracks that helped fuel his comeback nearly half a decade ago, Bieber slides into Dan + Shay’s tranquil tone with a surprising effortlessness, trading off choruses and harmonizing with the duo on the silky outro.
Bieber has never really made a country-pop song before this — his closest analog would be the stripped-down reinterpretations of his earlier tracks, or the acoustic kiss-off “Love Yourself.” But, as an irrepressible love song that bottles the heart-melting emotion conjured by every wedding photo that Hailey Bieber posts on Instagram, “10,000 Hours” makes it sound like Bieber has been operating in this style for years.
Which begs the question: should “10,000 Hours” point Bieber toward his next musical direction? What if the new single is “Where Are U Now” redux — a trial balloon that, if it takes off, could shape the entire cadence of Bieber’s next endeavor?
It’s too early to tell how big of a hit the song will become, although it’s already become Bieber’s first entry on the Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay charts, and has been lingering near the top of the Spotify and iTunes charts since its release. Part of that has to do with the combined star power of its two artists: Bieber is still on a red-hot streak thanks to “I Don’t Care,” his dancehall-lite duet with Ed Sheeran that has been one of this year’s most ubiquitous singles, while Dan + Shay just collected its sixth Country Airplay No. 1 single and announced an arena tour for 2020 to demonstrate their muscle in the modern country world. At the very least, the names attached to “10,000 Hours” may be well-known enough to keep interest in the single high in the coming weeks.
But even if “10,000 Hours” doesn’t blow up, the song has unexpectedly suggested a career path for Bieber that abides by his musical skill set — he’s an excellent songwriter, dexterous vocalist and capable-enough guitar player to play in front of stadium audiences. More importantly, however, upbeat country-pop might be the best genre to suit his current personal focus.
In the parts of his life that he’s shared with the world via social media posts, Bieber has expressed a sense of calm gratitude, opening up about his past struggles with substance abuse, the inner peace he has found in religion, and the appreciation he feels in his new role as a husband. “You learn patience, trust, commitment, kindness, humility and all of the things it looks like to be a good man,” Bieber wrote of marriage in a post last month. The message was reflective of what Bieber now seems to be: a reformed bad boy, humble family man, learning from the daily tests of domestic bliss.
And to be honest, that’s not the most logical subject matter to be translated into a project full of pop bangers. Whereas Purpose turned themes of guilt, confusion and romantic struggle into radio fodder, Bieber’s next project will presumably come from a more even-keeled perspective. And if that’s the case, a full-on country-pop pivot — an album-length, or even EP-length, ode to the eternal commitment that Bieber sings about on “10,000 Hours” — would make a ton of sense.
Maybe there’s a rough-and-tumble duet with Luke Combs in the offing, or a soaring team-up with Carrie Underwood. Maybe Natalie Hemby conjures up some new magic with Bieber in a writing session, or Dave Cobb helms a few gruff, experimental tracks about Bieber’s darker days. “10,000 Hours” proves that Bieber could hack it in Nashville if he wanted to — and given his stardom, he would have the genre’s brightest minds and voices at his disposal.
Of course, “10,000 Hours” could be a total red herring for Bieber’s next project, a one-off with Dan + Shay that checks another genre off his list before he moves back to pop. Bieber’s other recent collaborations have been with artists like Sheeran, Gucci Mane and DJ Khaled, along with a remix to Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” — hardly an indication of some deep preoccupation with country music. The thing is, none of those songs work as well as “10,000 Hours” does. There are a few reasons for that — and before he drops his next opus, Bieber should consider them.